155: The f sound and semi-irregular plurals

3 things to keep in mind when making 'wife' into 'wives' and 'leaf' into 'leaves.'


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 155th episode.

We've had a number of podcasts about the -s ending, but we've never talked about that small set of irregular plurals where a final f sound is changed to a v sound before adding the -s ending. These are words like the singular wife and its plural wives and the singular leaf and its plural leaves.

This seemingly simple episode explains a number of topics, starting with ideas good for beginners, and ending with some concepts that are a bit complicated. If you'd like to read the transcript along with listening to this show, go to www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

If you're a Spanish speaker, you may want to listen to our podcasts in Spanish to be able to have the greatest understanding of the topics. Go to the link I just mentioned, www.pronuncian.com/podcast, and click "en espanol" to see all the episodes we've published so far.

To begin with today, let's review how to create the f sound and v sound. The f sound and v sound are an unvoiced/voiced pair. An unvoiced sound is produced without using the vocal cords, while a voiced sound allows them to vibrate. Both of these sounds are created when air is pushed between the top of the bottom lip and the bottom of the top front teeth. You don't need to curl you bottom lip into your mouth to create these sounds, it takes only a very little amount of friction. Also, these sounds are both fricatives, so their pronunciation can be held for a long time.

Create the f sound with me: (f sound).
Now create the v sound with me: (v sound)

Remember, if you can't hold these sounds for a few seconds, you're not creating them correctly. We're going to say them again, and this time I want you to put a couple of fingers against the front of your throat and feel the difference in vibration between the unvoiced f sound and the voiced v sound.

f sound, (f sound)
v sound, (v sound)

Could you feel the difference?

Next, let's review adding the -s ending to words. If an -s ending is added to an unvoiced sound (such as the f sound), the -s ending is pronounced as an s sound. So if I add an -s ending to the verb laugh, I get laughs. If I add an -s ending to the verb cough, I get coughs.

However, simply adding an -s ending does not work very often with nouns that end in the f sound because a large number of those nouns have semi-irregular plurals. You probably already know what I'm talking about: the f sound changes to a v sound, and then the -s ending is added. Because the f sound changes to a v sound, the -s ending becomes voiced and is pronounced as a z sound. Yes, a lot of things just happened, so let's listen to some examples of nouns that originally end in an f sound, but change to a v sound for plurals. I'll say the singular first, then the plural.

shelf, shelves
wolf, wolves
life, lives
leaf, leaves
thief, thieves
knife, knives

See, that wasn't so bad! Now I'm going to go one step further and make this a truly advanced lesson by talking about something that happens to the vowel sound in four of these six nouns. Can you think of anything that is different about the sound before the f sound in the words shelf and wolf as compared to life, leaf, thief, and knife? That was comparing shelf and wolf to life, leaf, thief, and knife.

The first two example words have a consonant sound before the f sound, and the rest all have a vowel sound before the f sound. But why does this matter?

It matters because the change from an f sound to a v sound will also change the duration of a vowel sound that immediately precedes it. The same vowel sound will have a slightly shorter duration when it occurs before an unvoiced sound than it has before a voice>d sound. That means that the long i sound in the words life and knife is pronounced for less time than it is in the words lives and knives. Similarly, the long e sound in the words leaf and thief is pronounced for less time than the long e sound in the words leaves and thieves.

There is no change in the vowel sound duration in the words shelf and shelves or the words wolf and wolves because the vowel sound is followed by an l sound in all those words. Since the l sound didn't change, the vowel sounds won't change. Our Introduction to Fricatives lesson on Pronuncian.com also explains this concept, and I'll be sure to link to that lesson from this lesson's transcript page.

So getting back to our example words, the words life, leaf, thief, and knife have three changes to their pronunciation when they are made plural. First, the f sound changes to a v sound. Then, this causes the -s ending to become voiced and pronounced as a z sound. Finally, if the original f sound is preceded by a vowel sound, the length of the vowel sound will increase in the plural due to the voiced v sound.

Yes, this is all rather complicated, but is is a good example of the trickle-down effect on pronunciation when one change is made to a word.

In addition to linking to the Introduction to Fricatives lesson from this episode's transcript page, I'll also link to other lessons that deal with these topics. Again, you can find all of our episodes' transcripts by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast. At the bottom of each lesson are additional listening exercises and quizzes to help you practice your English pronunciation. Those exercises and quizzes are available to our Pronuncian subscribers. To find out more information about that, go to www.pronuncian.com/join. Pronuncian is spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.

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That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.